Lionel White wrote such clever and realistic crime novels that when a petty crook in France read one of his books, he used it as a blueprint for his own crime. It seemed clever to him, and foolproof, although a series of coincidences and flaws in human character made the scheme fail in the book. The Frenchman had no such problem and successfully pulled off one of the most successful kidnappings in modern French history, snatching the grandson of the man who had founded the Peugeout automotive empire.
Unfortunately for the crook, White’s books tended to be on the noir-ish side of things and the French crook completed the transaction with complete success, only now he had no guide for success. He was apprehended several weeks later in a Swiss chalet, partying with friends, throwing great amounts of cash around and with no explanation for how he had gotten it.
Just when it looked like crime actually paid, it . . . didn’t.
White’s book, Clean Break (1955), was brought to promising filmmaker Stanley Kubrick by his partner. It was so crisply and clearly written that for the cash-strapped director he had his storyboards right there, in the paperback version of White’s book. Kubrick made a classic film noir, The Killing (1956) and not only made himself, he made a legend.
Hostage for a Hood
The accident took place at exactly fourteen minutes after nine on Monday morning at a blind intersection where Elm Road crossed Main Street at an oblique angle. It involved two automobiles, one a seven-year-old black sedan and the other a brand-new two-toned job, stolen at daybreak from in front of a doctor’s office over in the residential section of the town. The seven-year-old sedan had all of the best of it.
The accident also involved two men, a woman and a medium-sized French poodle. No one was injured, except possibly in spirit, and there were no witnesses. The woman was at fault.
Both drivers were sober and neither was speeding at the time. Material damage was well under a hundred dollars. There was no other property damage. But for a completely insignificant, everyday run-of-the-mill accident, the repercussions were fantastic.
Detective Lieutenant Martin Parks, normally in charge of homicide, but a policeman who kept in touch with almost every activity of the small but efficient Brookside force, would be and was the first to admit this. The lieutenant was not a man given to superlatives or overstatement.
Joyce Sherwood was the woman involved. She had been driving the black sedan. A split second before the crash, she realized what was about to happen. Simultaneously with the realization, she knew herself to be at fault. But she was given no time for idle reflection, and even as she instinctively jammed down on the brake and opened her mouth in the beginning of a small scream, there was a rending crunch of metal against metal and the accident was an accomplished fact.
The impact wasn’t great, but it was sufficient to throw the poodle from the seat of the sedan to the floor, where it crouched in hurt, shocked surprise. Joyce herself was shaken up and bruised when her slender, small body rammed forward against the steering wheel. But even in that initial moment of shock, she instinctively reached for the brown suede leather bag at her side which contained the cashier’s check for twenty-six hundred dollars. It was the check—which she had obtained only minutes before from the teller at the County Trust Company—which was responsible for taking her mind off of her driving and was indirectly responsible for the accident.
There were no witnesses because the intersection was deserted at the moment and the sound of the crash was not sufficiently loud to attract attention from a distance.
As is usual in such cases, there was a moment of utter silence after the two cars made contact. And then the poodle recovered his vocal cords, if not his dignity, and set up a howl. This served to unblock Joyce’s temporary mental paralysis and she reached for the handle of the door at her side. As she started to twist it she saw the doors of the other car open and the two men step to the ground. They moved toward the front to survey the damage.
They were wearing police uniforms, and Joy experienced an odd sense of relief as her mind went to the certified check made out to cash. It was the last time she was to enjoy that particular sensation for a long, long while . . .
The Merriweather File
My interest as well as my participation in the Merriweather Case, as it came to be known in at least the more dignified segments of the public press, came about as the result of a singularly routine circumstance. It started as a matter of geography. The Merriweathers and I happened to live in that same middle-class, completely run-of-the-mill, unspectacular suburb of New York City known as Fairlawn Acres. It was as simple as that.
Or, actually, was it? Am I, in retrospect, making everything a trifle too obvious?
I shall try again. I want this document to be completely accurate. And so, even at the risk of overelaboration, let me say that, in reality, my interest in the Merriweather Case was a result of two factors—a sort of split-level reason, which is only to be expected as I live in a split-level house and have a split-level sense of morality and social obligation. In any case, geography might have been the fundamental reason, but the reason for my participation was infinitely more complex. Charles and Ann Merriweather were friends of mine and, during that period in which we lived in Fairlawn, became very close and very good friends. The second part of the reason for my interest and participation was the fact that I am an attorney-at-law.
Should you happen to recall the Merriweather Case and should you remember my name in connection with it as counsel for the defense, let me explain at once that I am not nor ever was a so-called “criminal lawyer.” I am not even a trial lawyer. My work had, up until the time of the Merriweather matter, involved mostly tax business and the occasional drawing up of a will or the filing of a deed. My clients are, for the most part, middle class professional people, small business men and a few odd balls who have been sent to me by established customers. Very rarely do I find it necessary to leave the confines of my New York office to handle my work and on those one or two occasions when a case calls for an appearance in court, I have enlisted the services of a more adequately endowed colleague, much as a general practitioner might call in for consultation a specialist or a surgeon.
The one exception was during the course of the Merriweather Case, which I handled myself from beginning to end. I might say right here that it is certainly the last case of that type I shall ever handle.
Let me apologize at once if I seem to be harping too much on myself. The fact is, however, that in order to understand the background, it is essential that you know something about me. After all, I, Howard Means Yates, was a bit more than merely a friend of the family and an attorney involved. I was, at one time or another, a major actor in the drama I am about to unfold.
It is more than a year now since the Merriweather Case has finished and done with and I, of course, am a year older. I am forty-six. When I became involved, I was a widower, my wife Laura having died of a heart attack less than six months after we purchased our home in Fairlawn Acres. Laura’s death was sudden and a terrible shock. It left me with memories of eighteen contented years of marriage and with two children, Howard Means Yates, Jr., who is sixteen, and Gordon Means Yates, twelve.
Laura died in the spring of the year, just after the trees had turned green and the newly awakened earth was bursting with flowers and life, a tragic time to die. For a brief time I was almost out of my mind with grief. The boys themselves seemed more than normally affected and I did what I thought would be the best thing all around.
Soon after the funeral, I packed them up and the three of us took off for a two months’ tour of Europe. Upon our return, I entered them in private schools and prepared to pick up the pieces of my own life. I’d thought at first that I would sell the house and take an apartment in Manhattan, but when I began looking over our small collection of possessions—the furniture we had purchased, the barbecue equipment and the lawn mowers and garden tools and all, I suddenly found it impossible to make the move. I decided to stay at Fairlawn and maintain the house for the boys to return to in the summers. It would be lonely, but not so lonely as breaking up the remnants of our life together and settling down in the sterility of some New York apartment cell. At least there, in Fairlawn, I would be surrounded by the things we had both loved. And I would also be surrounded by those new friends we had jointly made during our few months together in the suburban development. Among those friends were Charles and Ann Merriweather.
Had Laura died while we were living in the Manhattan apartment house, there would have been the usual cards of condolence, the usual fragmentary telephone calls, a visit or so and perhaps, for a week or two after the event, the halfhearted but well meaning invitation to someone’s home for dinner or perhaps to make a fourth at bridge. But then it would all have been forgotten and I should have been left to sit out the lonely hours either by myself in front of television, or, out of desperation, down at some in corner tavern, drinking myself slowly into oblivion.
In Fairlawn Acres it was different. The people of Fairlawn came to me offering to share their time and their activities and their love. There wasn’t a weekend on which I was not invited to at least one party or cook-out. A golf game or a bridge party. A dinner in this house, or a backyard picnic at that one.
Among them all, all of these kind neighbors, perhaps the most consistent in the way of extending invitations were the Merriweathers, whose back yard was separated from mine by a low, split log fence, designed more as a decoration than for any practical purpose of keeping out intruders.
Lionel White was born July 9, 1905 in New York City. He started his career as a police reporter and true crime magazine editor, and turned those experiences toward fiction writing with his first novel, The Snatchers, in 1953, about a failed kidnapping. He wrote more than 35 books, many of them translated into different languages and turned into films like The Night of the Following Day, The Money Trap, The Big Caper, Pierrot le Fou and perhaps most famously, The Killing, adapted by Stanley Kubrick from White’s novel, Clean Break. He was considered the master of the big caper, and was credited by director Quentin Tarantino with the inspiration for his film, Reservoir Dogs. White died December 26, 1985, in Asheville, North Carolina.
Image courtesy of Stark House Press.